The University of Oklahoma in Norman, Okla., is taking a key role in a new project that could help surveillance and pandemic preparedness for avian influenza viruses that infect people, wild birds and poultry, the university announced Dec. 5.
The National Science Foundation awarded a $2.5 million grant to the University of Oklahoma to investigate the diversity and transmission of avian influenza viruses. The grant, to be paid out over five years, is in the area of disease ecology and public health.
“One of the world’s great challenges impacting society today is the spread of infectious diseases and its implications on human health and world economy,” said Tomás Díaz de la Rubia, University of Oklahoma vice president for research and partnerships for the Norman campus. “This research will change how disease is predicted and tracked in order to ultimately protect people and animals from deadly viruses.”
In the past two decades, highly contagious avian influenza strains have infected poultry in many countries, which has had tremendous economic implications, resulting in the loss of billions of dollars in poultry production, the announcement noted. As these viruses persist, evolve and spread, economic losses and health concerns grow.
Data and knowledge on the diversity and transmission of these viruses are still limited and scattered, which substantially hinders the forecasting of the possible transmission of avian influenza viruses, the university said. This project assembles an international and multidisciplinary team from three institutions in the U.S. — the University of Oklahoma, U.S. Geographical Survey Patuxent Wildlife Research Center and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital — as well as other international organizations.
“This research will focus on the ecology and evolution of avian influenza viruses and grow the opportunity for international collaboration in tackling critical issues in pandemic preparedness,” said principal investigator Xiangming Xiao of the University of Oklahoma.
The research will strengthen the capacity for national and international stakeholders to tackle critical issues in surveillance and pandemic preparedness, in part by training postdoctoral researchers and graduate students in interdisciplinary research skills for studying disease ecology, epidemiology and public health, the announcement said.
In addition, through crowdsourcing, citizen science and outreach activities, the project will also educate non-academic stakeholders and the public on ecology and evolution of infectious diseases, which may lead to changes in human behaviors that could possibly reduce the transmission and spread of avian influenza viruses, the university said.